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The start of the school year and relaunch of in-person classes signals a desire to return to a pre-pandemic normal that could be catastrophic for Black parents. After keeping their children home for remote learning during the initial days of the pandemic, many are now trapped between two impossible options: send their children to school where they risk getting ill and possibly spreading the virus at home, or keep them home for their safety and risk a possible investigation by Child Protective Services (CPS). 

“They are traumatizing our children,” said Tanesha Grant, the founder of Parents Supporting Parents NY. “These kids are scared, the parents are scared. And then they have the nerve to threaten us with [Administration for Children’s Services (ACS)]. We’re trying to keep our children alive, ourselves alive.”

Black people are three times more likely than white people to be hospitalized for COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from the virus’ complications, according to the CDC. There are also growing indications of racial disparities affecting breakthrough rates for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous populations. The confluence of systemic forces that create these realities—generations of medical abuse and neglect that precipitate preexisting conditions, and the income and wealth gap for instance—mean that Black people and families continue to bear some of the harshest impacts of the pandemic with the least access to resources to help them recover and navigate the shifting risk levels as they try to ensure their children can go to school safely.

Trapped between children’s health and CPS

In New York City, where Grant lives, keeping a child from school—known as student absenteeism—is considered educational neglect and grounds for investigation. It’s also home to the largest public school system in the country. Grant knew that Black parents were on their own long before the pandemic started, but that sense of isolation was magnified by the lack of support and consistent direction from local government and public school officials when COVID-19 hit the U.S. As an early epicenter for the virus’s spread, the state had ample time to revise its COVID-19 mitigation strategies to support the needs of students and parents, but Grant said that schools aren’t keeping parents apprised with basic information, such as student infection rates. Parents have little choice but to make the best possible decision they can with the available data—and risk getting punished for it. 

“I had a parent call me who decided to keep her child out of school because she had an underlying condition. So the school told her, ‘Well, we’re not going to send home [class] work because you should be sending your child into school,’” Grant said. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, mid-September—around the time that most public schools had started or were starting up again—saw an 8% increase in the number of children who contracted a COVID-19 infection. Children currently comprise over a quarter of all new infections. Black and Latinx children are more likely than white children to be hospitalized for a COVID-19 infection and Black children are the most likely to be admitted to intensive care units with life-threatening inflammation that results from infection. Unsurprisingly, 63% of parents agree that schools that do not require vaccination for students and staff should mandate mask usage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

However, even in a Democratic-run state resourced with vaccines and masks, Black parents are often put in the position of having to fight for their child’s safety in school while the definition of “safe” keeps changing. For many, there are no easy choices, and Grant said that many NYC Black parents are so scared of ACS that they’re willing to risk their child’s health by sending them to school instead of keeping them home.

“How messed up is that?” Grant said.

Who does child welfare services actually protect?

The telos of Child Protective Services (CPS), a department housed in the federal Health and Human Services administration, is rooted in the period of legalized American slavery. The legacy of enslavement, which routinely separated families to turn a profit, grew racist ideas about the “fitness” of Black parents and entitlement of white people to make parenting decisions in the “best interests” of Black children. These legally and socially codified rules led to the creation of “child welfare services,” which disproportionately impact low-income families of color, particularly Black families—to this day, over half of Black children and families can expect to be investigated by CPS. The pathways between CPS and foster care systems are well-documented, and so too are the pathways between foster care and incarceration. In other words, experts say that the surveillance of Black families creates and perpetuates a cycle of criminalization of Black people and parents that traumatizes Black children.

Amanda Wallace, a co-founder of Operation Stop CPS, a grassroots movement dedicated to protecting families of color from the system of children’s protection, is a former child abuse investigator who understands the harms of the child welfare apparatus. In May, Wallace and Operation Stop CPS co-founder Tafarrah Austin, were fired from their CPS positions when they published a guide for parents about how to reclaim power from CPS. Having seen the ways Black parents are treated by the system, Wallace said that “CPS is just a belief that the best interest of children is for there to be some type of oversight,” but that oversight is really a means to “over-police parents.”

During the pandemic, while still employed by CPS, Wallace and her colleagues received increased reports of neglect and abuse of children; reports of students failing to sign into online classes, falling asleep in front of their computers, or not completing their homework. Professionals, or those who have direct contact with a child thought to be neglected or abused, make up 68.6% of reports to CPS, according to the 2019 Child Maltreatment report. That same year, CPS received 4.4 million reports, of which almost half are not actually investigated or “screened in” by CPS workers. 

“So CPS was called … And they would say, ‘Oh, well, you know, nobody’s there to watch them or you know, they’re neglecting them from going to bed on time and stuff like that,’” Wallace said. 

Wallace explained that Black parents are often treated as adversaries of their own children who need to be pulled from their families into the safety of government sanctioned care providers. In her experience, Wallace said that CPS investigators find that parents thought to be neglecting or abusing their children actually live in poverty, which she says isn’t indicative of a parent neglecting their child—instead it’s really evidence of social safety nets neglecting whole families. In Wallace’s opinion, that some parents care for their children in ways that are perceived differently than how people in power parent their children is used to push a false narrative that CPS has the power to dictate who is or is not raising their children “correctly.” 

“[CPS] definitely affects Black and brown children so much more—just think about [how] it comes to the school system,” Wallace said. “The school being the number one reporters. At-risk schools … have these trainings that teach them what to look for, and it looks like poverty, right? I mean, neglect looks like poverty.”

Mask bans put Black families at further risk

Though Wallace said there’s no difference in how a CPS operator is deputized across Democratic and Republican states, in places like Texas or Florida where baseline public health measures like mask usage are politicized, Black parents are further cornered. 

In May, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order banning mask mandates in public buildings and institutions. Leading public health organizations, like the CDC, state that mask usage significantly reduces the transmission of COVID-19, and that all who are medically able to use masks should. Vaccines further help reduce the effects of the faster-spreading and more severe Delta variant of the virus, though for those who are unable to be vaccinated or those who might be severely debilitated by illness even with a vaccine, mask usage can be a life-saving move. Despite the executive order, some cities and public entities across Texas are instituting local mask mandates that district attorneys have made clear they won’t prosecute

Recently, the Department of Education (DOE) opened an investigation into the state’s ban on mask mandates. A letter sent by the DOE claimed that bans “may be preventing schools in Texas from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from covid-19.” 

In her work as a member of Texas Parent to Parent’s family support team, Greta James-Maxfield hears a lot of stories from parents about fighting school officials on behalf of their disabled children. For parents like James-Maxfield, who have disabled children and require different services than other students might, the open and public demand for resources puts her in a public position. Sexism and racism directed toward parents like James-Maxfield is often a hurdle and can make it even harder to advocate for more accessible education for disabled students. Who gets listened to and who gets ignored can largely depend on who has perceived power and influence.

“Going into a room full of [school officials and administrators] that have been deputized by a school district, generally, they’re not going to be Black,” James-Maxfield said. “There is a very special kind of racism reserved for Black folks.” 

In the case that their children aren’t protected by districts—mask mandate or not—James-Maxfield said that some parents are grappling with whether or not to send their children back to school. And that itself is a risk; in Texas, children must attend 90% of their classes, after which the school creates a plan to address truancy, including loss of driving privileges or counseling. If they suspect parental neglect is the root of a child’s attendance, schools can file a criminal complaint against a parent.

A simple solution, Grant said, would be to allow students who want to learn from home to continue to do so. Remote learning is just one of her demands of the district where her son is enrolled, along with providing the tools, like laptops, so that students are able to do so. 

What Grant’s demand really amounts to is that public entities—from municipal governments, to federally-funded child welfare agencies, to public schools—treat Grant and other Black parents with respect. At a time when the government has offered inadequate support for Black parents to navigate the pandemic, Grant asked, why is it that Black parents are treated as the ones who are inadequate? Expecting Black parents to send their children into the equivalent of a burning building, when they know the building is on fire, and holding the threat of CPS over their heads if they don’t, makes no sense.

“I have been dealing with this system since I was a Black child,” Grant said. “I know what it does. And no one is going to gaslight me and no one is going to take away my human right to protect my son.”

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.